This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The Dallas Cowboys. America’s Team. The most popular and hated team in the NFL. There is no franchise more polarizing, more notorious, more famous, more decorated and more analyzed than the Cowboys.
There are no options when it comes to expectations from Cowboy fans. Super Bowl or utter failure. In 1989, the Cowboys failed in a big way!
It started when Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys from longtime owner H.R. “Bum” Bright in February of 1989. Jones first course of action was to fire legendary coach Tom Landry, the only coach the Cowboys have ever known, since joining the NFL in 1960. Jones wasn’t done there. He let go general manager Tex Schramm, and assumed the role of GM of the Cowboys.
Cowboy fans howled in protest over the way Landry and Schramm were treated by Jones. After leading the Cowboys to two Super Bowl Championships and 5 appearances in the big game, fans and media thought that Landry and Schramm should have been treated with more dignity. But Jones was adamant that a new regime was needed to run the Cowboys in the future.
While Jones named himself general manager, he hired Jimmy Johnson as head coach of the Cowboys. Johnson was coming off an enormously successful stint at the University of Miami, leading the Hurricanes to the National Championship in 1987, and establishing the “Decade of Dominance” at The U.
The problem was that Johnson had zero experience in the NFL, and many questioned whether he could handle pro athletes, compared to college players. Johnson was known to let his players have free rein at Miami, and the Hurricanes were known as the Bad Boys of college football. The NFL requires discipline and control to be successful. Johnson was going to learn the hard way that he had to change his ways in Dallas.
The Cowboys did have the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, and used that pick to select quarterback Troy Aikman from UCLA. Jones and Johnson were confident that Aikman could become the franchise quarterback, every great team needs.
However, 1989 was a major struggle for the rookie signal caller. Aikman appeared in 11 games, completing 52.9% of his pass attempts for 1,749 yards, 9 touchdowns and 18 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 55.7. Yes, Aikman threw twice as many interceptions as he did touchdowns. The Cowboys also used Steve Walsh at quarterback during the 1989 season. Walsh played for Johnson at Miami, so he was familiar with Johnson’s tactics and style. Walsh appeared in 8 games for the Cowboys, starting in 5 of them. His numbers weren’t great, completing 50.2% of his passes for 1,371 yards, 5 touchdowns and 9 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 60.5.
The Cowboys best player going into the 1989 season was running back Herschel Walker. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Georgia rushed for 1,514 yards in 1988, and was considered the focal point of the offense. But after only 5 games into the 1989 season, the Cowboys made a bold move by trading Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for linebackers David Howard and Jesse Solomon, cornerback Issiac Holt, running back Darrin Nelson, defensive end Alex Stewart, the Vikings first, second and sixth round picks in the 1990 draft, the Vikings first and second round picks in the 1991 draft, the Vikings second and third round picks in the 1992 draft, and the Vikings first round choice in the 1993 draft. It was, and still is the largest trade in NFL history and sunk the Cowboys in 1989. The thinking behind the trade was that Johnson knew he had a horrible team in Dallas, so trade away your best asset, and start building for the future.
Despite the trade, Walker was still the second leading rusher for the Cowboys in 1989, gaining 246 yards and scoring 2 touchdowns. The leading rusher for the Cowboys in 1989 was Paul Palmer, who recorded 446 yards and 2 touchdowns in 9 games played. Palmer wasn’t going to be the next Tony Dorsett. The Cowboys also tried Broderick Sargent, Darryl Clack and Kevin Scott at running back. None would ever be heard from again.
The receivers weren’t much better. Michael Irvin would become a star in the NFL but in 1989, he was just another guy. The Cowboys first pick in the 1988 draft, only had 26 receptions for 378 yards and 2 touchdowns. Irvin did battle injuries throughout the season, which limited him to only 6 games in 1989.
Kelvin Martin had the best year for Cowboy pass-catchers in 1989. The man known as K-Mart, compiled 46 receptions for 644 yards and 2 touchdowns. James Dixon took time off from his kick returning duties to haul in 24 passes for 477 yards and 2 touchdowns. Derrick Shepard wasn’t trusted to take care of the flock and with good reason. His 18 receptions for 268 yards and 1 touchdown was mediocre at best, and he was quickly forgotten, before he could be remembered.
Add it all up, and you have the worst offense in the NFL for 1989. The Cowboys scored the fewest points, averaging 12.75 points per game! A 40-year-old comic book geek who lives in his mom’s basement scored more than the 89 Cowboys. The Cowboys were second last in yards gained, averaging 268.3 yards per contest. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers gained fewer yards, yet they made the playoffs that year! The Cowboys were shut out three times in 1989. In other words, the safest place to be in Dallas during a tornado was Texas Stadium. No touchdowns were recorded there.
The defense was slightly better, but not much better. The Cowboys ranked 24th in points given up and 20th in yards allowed. They were on the field more often than they needed to be, thanks to the anemic offense. The best player on the defense was Jim Jeffcoat. The veteran defensive end, led the Cowboys with 11.5 sacks and 100 tackles. Others such as Ken Norton Jr and Tony Tolbert helped anchor a defense that would become dominant down the road. But there were many still that disappeared into the football wilderness of lost souls. Luminaries such as Manny Hendrix, Willie Broughton, Dean Hamel and Ron Francis all suited up for the Cowboys in 1989. Yet none of them are remembered except for the extreme die-hard Cowboy supporters.
In the end the Cowboys ended up with a 1-15 record, which was by far the worst record in the NFL in 1989. The Cowboys were no longer America’s Team, they were America’s Joke in 1989. The only moment of satisfaction came on November 5, when the Cowboys shocked their arch-rival Washington Redskins 13-3, which ended up costing the Redskins a playoff berth. But some of the losses were just awful. The Cowboys began the season by getting pounded 28-0 by the New Orleans Saints.
But the two worst games for the Cowboys were against another bitter foe, the Philadelphia Eagles. The first encounter happened on Thanksgiving at Texas Stadium. The Eagles were coached by Buddy Ryan who had no sympathy towards the Cowboys plight. In fact, Ryan and the Eagles had bounties set up on Cowboy players, most notably kicker Luis Zendejas. The Mexican born kicker began the season in Philadelphia before being released and signing with the Cowboys midway through the season. Ryan reportedly offered $200.00 to any Eagle who would knock out Zendejas out of the game. The Eagles took cheap shots at every opportunity on the helpless kicker, while the Cowboys stood by and watched. Jimmy Johnson was furious after the game which led to a memorable press conference. The Eagles went on to record and easy 27-0 victory.
The same two teams met three weeks later at Veterans Stadium. Eagle fans have absolutely nothing but hatred for the Cowboys and were taking special glee over the Cowboys misfortunes. Most of the fans venom was directed towards Johnson and it wasn’t just naughty and inventive curse words being thrown towards the Cowboys coach. Johnson and the Cowboys were being pelted with snowballs, some with batteries inside as Eagle fans let out all their wrath and hatred towards the Boys. Even CBS announcers Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw who were calling the game, weren’t immune to the fans wrath. The broadcast booth was also attacked with various snowballs and debris during the game. By the way, the Eagles won the game 20-10, extending the Cowboys misery that season.
However, things turned around in Dallas soon after. The Cowboys improved in 1990 to a more respectable 7-9 mark. In 1991, the Cowboys returned to the playoffs after a six-year absence. But it was 1992 when America’s Team returned to its lore. The Cowboys finished with a sterling 13-3 record and won the franchise’s third Super Bowl Championship. The Cowboys went on to defend their world title in 1993, by winning consecutive Super Bowls.
And on that Herschel Walker trade mentioned earlier, turns out the Cowboys won the trade in a landslide. While Walker struggled to find his form in Minnesota, the Cowboys used those draft picks to build a dynasty. The Cowboys used their 1990 first round pick they received from the Vikings to draft running back Emmitt Smith from the University of Florida. In 1991, the Cowboys used the Vikings first round choice to select wide receiver Alvin Harper from the University of Tennessee. Finally in 1992, the Cowboys used the Vikings second round choice to draft safety Darren Woodson from Arizona State. All three would be valuable contributors to the Cowboys success in the early 1990s, with Smith going on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
Goes to show that even the worst teams of all-time can become one of the best teams of all-time.
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